When you set out for a new job, you’re probably excited about learning things, meeting people, and expanding your expertise. But more money is a great perk, too, especially if you feel you’ve been undervalued at other jobs.
So what happens if you’re trying to earn what you deserve and a potential employer asks what you’ve earned in prior positions?
There are a few places where it’s illegal to get asked about salary history. If you’re lucky to live in those areas, you might not have anything to worry about. For those who don’t live in lucky spots, you can do a few things to skirt the salary history issue.
Why do companies ask for salary history?
Employers ask about salary to gauge the market for your position. If you’re interviewing for a position that’s like what you’ve been doing in the past, a company might look at your compensation as a competitive rate. But not all jobs are created — or paid — equally and fairly.
“I never thought that asking questions about a candidate’s salary history was particularly useful in the first place,” said Timothy Wiedman, a retired associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University. “Candidates have had a long history of ’embellishing’ their backgrounds, so self-reported salary histories are not necessarily going to be reliable.”
Even if you’re honest with a potential employer about your earnings, Wiedman said there’s no way to verify that information with those employers.
“There’s no ethical nor practical way to verify self-reported salary histories since virtually no former employers would ever divulge that sort of information during reference checks,” he said. “Hiring managers who asked applicants to provide salary histories were simply fooling themselves if they thought they were getting much useful information.”
Places where salary history is outlawed
More cities and states are changing those salary history questions. At the time of publication, it’s illegal for employers to ask candidates about salary history or current wages, including:
- New Orleans
- New York City
- Puerto Rico
- San Francisco
Not all laws are the same for each location. In Pittsburgh, for example, only city agencies can’t ask about salary history. In California, neither public nor private companies can request past compensation information.
What to do if a potential employer requests salary history
If you’re preparing for an upcoming interview and want to cover all your bases, make sure you know what’s legal in your state. It’s also good to know how to phrase answers that are firm and direct without coming off as disrespectful to your interviewer.
1. Know your state’s salary history laws. If you live in an area where it’s illegal for a company to inquire about your past earnings, know that before going into an interview. Wiedman suggests responding with: “I believe there’s a new law that puts that type of question out of bounds. But I’ll be perfectly willing to discuss my salary requirements.”
2. Redirect the answer. If it’s legal to ask the question where you live, get back to the subject of salary requirements, not history. You can also try to chat more on the career opportunity and if the job is a good fit for both you and the employer. “Instead of giving them your current actual salary, discuss the salary range you’re seeking based on your experience, education, skills, and certifications,” said Robin Schwartz, managing partner of MFG Jobs.
3. Use your lack of history to your advantage. If you’ve recently finished college, it’s easier to showcase that a job could be your first out of school. This will prove that salary history has no point in your current negotiations.
4. If you want to share, you can. “Disclosing your exact salary is your prerogative,” Schwartz said. “In some cases, interviewers might discuss a specific range they are looking to pay. If it’s below what you’re already making, it might benefit you to mention your current salary so the hiring manager is aware you’re not willing to take a decrease in pay.”
Salary history should not equate to future earnings
What you’ve earned in other jobs should not dictate what you should be earning in your next job. You might even consider job-hopping to boost your salary. Your past earnings are in your past, and you should be aware of how to handle yourself if questions of salary history come up.
- Know what your position earns. Check out Glassdoor and Salary.com to see what your job earns with your years of experience and where you live. What you earn in your state might be more or less in other places around the country.
- Use your knowledge and skills to your advantage. Prove to your possible future boss that you’re valuable and worthy of more than what you’ve earned in the past. Talk about how you’ve overcome obstacles and challenges to showcase your worth.
- Don’t be afraid to play the field. If you’re out of work and looking for a job quick, having multiple job offers might seem far-fetched. But if you’re applying at many places at once, you can negotiate a salary with one job by sharing your offer from another one. It could start a bidding war for you.
Share what you want, not what you used to make
Since some of the salary history bans are relatively new, you might not be in a place that enforces it yet. If that’s the case, go over how best to answer the question depending on your job field and potential employer.
You don’t need to divulge that information unless you want to, and it’s OK if you do. Make sure sharing your past earnings doesn’t hurt your future earnings.